More on the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun (part 2)

My post about the chemical attack in Syria last year has been widely shared and some people have criticized it, so I wanted to reply to some of the criticisms, which is long overdue. (If you haven’t read it yet, you need to do before you read this post.) Frankly, most of the responses came from people who clearly hadn’t read it or who just skimmed through it, so usually their objections were actually addressed in the original post.  Of course, you may think that I don’t address some of them satisfactorily and you may even be right about that, but you should at least acknowledge the fact that I anticipated them and explain why you think my response is not convincing. I know it’s a pretty long post, so it’s not surprising if you miss something or didn’t check every link, but if you’re going to object to something I say, please check my post again to make sure I didn’t already addressed that objection. What is even more infuriating is when people blame me for making a claim that not only I didn’t make, but that I explicitly denied making precisely because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to be misinterpreted. Finally, some people have accused me of basic fallacies, although they usually neglect to explain why. If you think I committed a basic fallacy, I recommend that you check the “about” page of this blog, which will tell you that I literally think about logic and epistemology for a living. Of course, it doesn’t mean that I never commit any fallacies (I’m sure I do very often), but it does mean that, before you accuse me of doing so, you should make sure that you understood me and that you’re not reading me uncharitably. If after that you still think that I committed a fallacy, you should explain where, because I’m not going to be very impressed if all you do is accuse me of committing a fallacy without saying anything more…

Now I have gotten that out of the way, I want to address some of the objections people have made after reading my post or arguments I have read in the press. I want to start with the argument I find the most baffling, because I honestly don’t see how anyone who is reasonable and well-informed can take it seriously. In my post, I briefly mentioned the fact that, given the political/military situation in Syria before the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, it would have been completely irrational for Assad to use chemical weapons. I didn’t elaborate because it seemed obvious to me, but apparently it’s not obvious to everyone, so I want to say more about it. First, a few days before the attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Trump’s administration had essentially declared that it would not seek Assad’s removal. This was arguably the most significant change of policy for the US since Obama demanded that Assad step down in July 2011. Given that Russia is now fully committed to Assad’s victory, this basically meant that he had won the war. The regime was therefore in a very favorable position when the attack in Khan Sheikhoun took place.

Thus, it had a lot to lose by using chemical weapons, but little to gain. Indeed, you have to keep in mind that, after the attack in Ghouta in 2013, which the US and its allies attributed to Assad’s regime, we came extremely close to a military intervention. It was only averted because, at the last minute, Obama agreed to a plan put together by Moscow to jointly supervise the dismantling of Syria’s chemical arsenal.  At the time, Washington’s foreign policy establishment and the media were absolutely furious, even more than after Trump’s administration said getting rid of Assad wasn’t a priority. The fact that Assad had to give up his chemical weapons arsenal or at least most of it also means that, despite what a lot of people say, it was not costless for him to avoid war in 2013. Of course, even after that event, neither the media nor Washington’s foreign policy establishment had abandoned their hope for regime change in Syria. Surely, unless you have been living in a cave for the past few years, you already know. But if you don’t, just randomly peruse articles in the press and reports from think tanks published during that period, it will soon convince you of what I’m saying.

It was therefore entirely predictable that, should a chemical attack be perpetrated by the regime, Trump would be under intense pressure from both within and without his administration to “do something” according to the euphemism de rigueur, which is exactly what happened. Again, if you randomly pick articles that have been written between the attack in Khan Sheikhoun and the US intervention last week or watch American news shows broadcast during that period, you can’t possibly miss it. Some people have claimed that, since Trump’s administration had more or less indicated that it would no longer seek regime change in Syria, Assad must have felt that using chemical weapons was now safe. But only someone who lives in a parallel universe could think such a thing and Assad does not. Some have also said that Assad must have thought he could use chemical weapons without fear of a military intervention on the part of the US since Trump had made clear that he favored a non-interventionist foreign policy and opposed regime change. Now, I agree that a military intervention in Syria is less likely with Trump than it would have been with Clinton, but that’s largely irrelevant. (It’s also interesting that, in general, the people who point out that Trump had made various non-interventionist statements about Syria are the same people who, in other contexts, insisted that it had no bearing whatsoever on whether he was going to be a hawk. They don’t seem to realize that you can’t have your cake and eat it.) What people who make that point apparently don’t understand is that, for the argument I’m making to go through, it’s enough that using chemical weapons made a US military intervention somewhat likely, which it clearly did. Indeed, such a military intervention has potentially disastrous consequences for Assad, whereas the potential benefit of using chemical weapons is extremely limited, as I will now argue.

Even if we accept every claim against the regime that it used chemical weapons and systematically pick the highest estimate for the casualties, which we really shouldn’t, the number of victims would probably be less than 2,000. On the other hand, according to Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, the conflict had already killed 400,000 people a year ago. If we assume that Assad’s regime is only responsible for half of them, which is much less than what people who call for regime change typically say, chemical weapons are responsible for less than 1% of the people killed by the regime. Thus, it’s clear that chemical weapons do not play a major role for the regime in the conflict, even on the most pessimistic assumptions. Indeed, it’s overwhelming likely that, even if the regime committed every chemical attack that has been attributed to it by the opposition, refraining from using chemical weapons altogether would not have significantly changed the course of the war. Given how much Assad stands to lose by using them, this makes the use of chemical weapons extremely irrational for him in pretty much any circumstances.

Proponents of the official narrative are aware of the problem, so they try to explain it away, but their explanations are laughable. Anne Barnard, who is getting stupider by the minute (something one might have thought was impossible), wrote a long article for the New York Times with the headline “The grim logic of Syria’s chemical attack” in which she tries to explain why Assad would have taken the risk of using chemical weapons. The problem is that most of the article doesn’t even try, let alone succeeds, to explain that. Her entire argument is contained in these three paragraphs:

Dr. Monzer Khalil, Idlib Province’s health director, said such extreme tactics aimed to demonstrate the government’s impunity and to demoralize its foes.


“It makes us feel that we are defeated,” said Dr. Khalil, whose gums bled after he was exposed to scores of chemical victims on Tuesday. “The international community will stay gazing at what’s happening — and observing the explosive barrels falling and rockets bombing the civilians and the hospitals and the civil defense and killing children and medical staff — without doing anything.”


“Militarily, there is no need,” said Bente Scheller, the Middle East director of the Berlin-based Heinrich Böll Foundation. “But it spreads the message: You are at our mercy. Don’t ask for international law. You see, it doesn’t protect even a child.”

In other words, Assad is taking a ridiculous risk by doing something which, as even his opponents admit, doesn’t make any military sense just to show how terrible he is and terrorize the population… You can find the same nonsensical explanation in a dozen other articles. It doesn’t matter how little sense it makes as long as it’s repeated often enough. It’s also worth noting that, a few paragraphs after the passage I quoted, Barnard acknowledges in passing that Monzil became Idlib’s health director after a coalition spear-headed by Al Qaeda in Syria conquered the province. However, there is no indication that it had any effect on how credible she thought he was, which is not surprising since for years the New York Times and most other newspapers have uncritically repeated anything they heard from rebels no matter how unsavory they are.

The US administration has also tried to explain why Assad would have taken such a risk, but its explanation is no more convincing than Barnard’s, which is really saying something. Indeed, a few hours before the White House released the report I’m going to talk about below, some administration officials gave a briefing about the attack in Khan Sheikhoun during which they tried to explain why the regime, according to them, used chemical weapons:

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, I think it’s important to understand the context in which these weapons were employed, what motivated the regime — the fact that they were losing in a particularly important area, and that’s what drove it.


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, so in the middle of March, opposition forces launched an offensive from Southern Idlib province toward the major city of Hama, which is a strategic city in Syria.  It’s Syria’s third city, and it’s also the location of a key Syrian regime airbase that has been crucial for the regime and the forces that support it for projecting power from central Syria, both along the western spine, from Aleppo down to the south, and also further to the east to support operations in Palmyra.  So that is an airbase that the regime had to calculate that it could not lose.


The opposition offensive approach was able to penetrate to within just a couple of miles of that strategic airbase and also threatened the Hama population center within just a few miles.


At that point, the regime we think calculated that with its manpower spread quite thin, trying to support both defensive operations and consolidation operations in Aleppo and along that north-south spine of western Syria, and also trying to support operations which required it to send manpower and resources east toward Palmyra, we believe that the regime probably calculated at that point that chemical weapons were necessary in order to try to make up for the manpower deficiency.


That’s why we saw, we believe, multiple attacks of this nature against locations that the regime probably determined were support areas for the opposition forces that were near Hama — for example, in the town of Al-Tamanah and then in the town of Khan Sheikhun, both of which are in what would be, in military terms, the rear area for the opposition forces that were on the front line.


So we believe certainly that there was an operational calculus that the regime and perhaps its Russian advisors went through in terms of the decision-making.


Q: You said there was an operational reason for this attack.




Q: So just to clarify what you just said, this was an attack on civilians, but your understanding is that these civilian areas were seen as providing some sort of operational support for the opposition forces, which is what they’re —


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.  Now, I don’t mean — I don’t mean that that means that the munitions were aimed at some sort of military capability.  What I —


Q: They were aimed at civilians.


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They were clearly aimed at areas that were most likely civilian areas.  However, what I mean is that they were most likely intended to create pressure in what was deemed a rear area for those opposition forces that were fighting.


Q: So understanding that, just a quick follow-up on that, is there anything about the timing, why this took place now — or when it did?




Q: So you explained to us why you think they chose to attack where they did.  Why did they do it then?


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, if you look at sort of the punch-counterpunch of opposition and regime forces that are fighting in the vicinity of Hama, yes, you can see that — in that context, you can see that the chemical weapons attacks seem — could fit within the flow of a punch-counterpunch — operational punch-counterpunch.

In other words, the regime was spread thin and needed to stop a rebel offensive that threatened Hama and a base in the area, so it decided to use chemical weapons to make up for the lack of manpower.

I don’t know who the journalists who asked the questions were, but it clearly wasn’t Anne Barnard, since they apparently have a brain. Indeed, it’s obvious they are skeptical about the administration’s narrative, which is not surprising given that it doesn’t make any sense. If the regime was trying to stop a rebel offensive by hitting their supply lines, as the official was suggesting, it’s really not clear why it would attack targets which, by the official’s own admission, had no military value. I don’t see how killing a few dozens civilians far away from the front could possibly stop the offensive… Moreover, if the regime wanted to do that, it seems that it could have achieved essentially the same result, without taking the huge risk of using chemical weapons, by using conventional explosive devices. If the regime itself didn’t have enough planes/bombs to do so and the situation had really been urgent, it could have asked Russia to do it, which has more than enough air power to kill a few dozens people anywhere in Syria. But what is worse is that, according to Reuters, the rebel offensive in the area had been stopped two weeks before the attack in Khan Sheikhoun and the regime had already begun its counteroffensive back then. In other words, according to the US government, Assad used chemical weapons on civilians nowhere near the front to stop a rebel offensive that had already been stalled two weeks before that…

Anyone who has not been completely brainwashed can tell that it doesn’t make any sense, but don’t count on the New York Times and, more generally, the mainstream media to point that out. No matter how you look at it, at the end of the day, you can’t attribute the attack in Khan Sheikhoun to Assad without also imputing to him a massive failure of rationality. There are many things reasonable people can disagree about, but this isn’t one of them. Of course, it doesn’t prove that the regime isn’t responsible for the attack, but it clearly undermines that hypothesis. Moreover, given that, as I explained in my original post, there is almost no reliable evidence that bears on the identity of the perpetrators of the attack, this fact alone should preclude any confident assertion that Assad is responsible. I think this would be totally uncontroversial if the media had not been so one-sided against the regime for the past several years. But in the current environment, it’s almost impossible to make that point, which is pretty weak, without being accused of shilling for Assad. If you repeat a narrative often enough, no matter how poorly supported the claims you make are, you can make it almost impossible for even totally reasonable and extremely weak points to be taken seriously. Of course, in a democracy, this is one of the main ways in which propaganda operates. Part of what makes it so efficient is that, for the most part, the people who spread that propaganda don’t even realize it’s what they’re doing.

I have also been criticized for refusing to take seriously the claim made by various experts, who dismissed the explanation given by the regime and Syria, according to which the government didn’t use chemical weapons but hit a building where rebels stored chemical agents, which resulted in their dispersion. They claim that, if a bomb had hit a building in which the rebels were storing sarin, the gas would have been destroyed and not so many people would have died. I agree that, in many cases, it’s irrational to reject the explanations of experts. But I didn’t say that we should dismiss their claims because they are experts and I have some kind of irrational hostility toward experts. I said that we should not take them seriously because they were willing to make confident assertions about what happened just a few hours after the attack was first reported and before any serious analysis had even been conducted. In particular, while most of the experts who spoke in the media were assuming that the attack involved sarin, we simply didn’t know that at the time.  If you confidently assert that the hypothesis proposed by the regime and Russia couldn’t possibly be true before we even know for sure what kind of chemical agents were released in Khan Sheikhoun, then I don’t care if you know a lot about chemical weapons, you have still demonstrated that you’re not interested in the truth and that you shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Again, this is a very weak claim that should be totally uncontroversial, but since the issue is controversial people don’t use ordinary epistemic standards. I’m just asking that we use the same epistemic standards we’d use if the issue wasn’t so sensitive and, clearly, we wouldn’t take seriously people who make very confident assertions about what is and isn’t possible before we even know what chemical agents were released if the war in Syria wasn’t such a sensitive issue. It’s also worth noting that many of the experts who spoke in the media are working for companies under contract with a Western government and have therefore a clear interest in not contradicting the narrative pushed by that government. For instance, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the expert I talked about in my original post, works for Avon Protection, a company that provides equipment for the British military. Even if he were not making claims that he is clearly not in a position to make, this fact should at least make journalists take what he says with a grain of salt, but instead they uncritically accept it.

People have also said that we know that sarin was involved in the attack since the Turkish government announced that autopsies of some of the victims had confirmed it. But we clearly shouldn’t accept this claim uncritically since the Turkish government has openly been pursuing regime change in Syria for years. It’s really amazing that the same people who accuse me of blindly accepting anything Russia is saying, which I obviously don’t, uncritically accept claims made by a government that is openly hostile to Assad’s regime… A few days ago, the Director-General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) declared that the analysis of bio-medical samples collected from several victims of the attack indicated “exposure to sarin or a sarin-like substance”, which has been presented in the media as confirmation that sarin was used in the attack. The OPCW released its final report on June 30, which apparently confirms that sarin was found in some of the samples. (Although the conclusions of that report have already been communicated and were largely discussed in the press, the report itself is still not publicly accessible. But according to Bellingcat, which apparently was able to obtain a copy of the report (I come back to this curious fact in part 3), sarin was found even in samples provided by the Syrian government. I’m not sure how the government was able to recover sample from Khan Sheikhoun, but if that is true, it would certainly be strong evidence that sarin was released over there on April 4.) Thus, it’s likely that sarin was involved in the attack, but we still don’t know what happened. Indeed, as the latest statement by the OPCW makes clear, the Fact-Finding Mission was not able to deploy to Khan Sheikhoun, for security reasons. Moreover, even if sarin was released in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, this doesn’t change the fact that it was totally premature to report this as fact just a few hours after the attack, which is exactly what the media did at the time.

Even if sarin was involved in the attack, it doesn’t follow that, as many experts claimed, it couldn’t have been released after a bomb hit a building where rebels were storing it. They claim that a bomb would simply have destroyed the gas without endangering the civilians in the area. Now, I’m no expert in chemical weapons, but I don’t need to be in order to know that I shouldn’t trust this claim. I can say that confidently even though I’m no expert because, on other occasions, the same people who now claim a bomb would have destroyed any sarin stored by the rebels made statements that are inconsistent with this claim… For instance, after the attack in Ghouta in 2013, when the US seemed poised to intervened against Assad, experts warned that airstrikes could endanger civilians by releasing dangerous chemicals. Here is what Walter Dorn, Professor of Defence Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada and the Canadian Forces College, told Global News back then:

Dr. Walter Dorn, a professor of Defence Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada and the Canadian Forces College, explained.
“You either incinerated it, so you burn it at a very high temperatures in an incinerator, so that decomposes the chemicals into their basic atoms and smaller molecules and it gives you carbon dioxide and water, or you neutralize it chemically,” he said. “You take another substance, an acid or a base and you mix it so that you cause a chemical reaction and you change the chemicals to lose their toxicity.”
Large-scale chemical incinerators would be needed. Though Dorn believes that it’s likely Syria has some sort of disposal facility, in order to dispose of any that has lost its toxicity – as sarin would do over time – it would have to meet certain standards.
Another option would be to bomb the storage facilities. Over the past few weeks, its been speculated that the U.S. possesses this type of weaponry. The United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency has been developing warheads for years that would essentially create the intense heat needed. However, if this course of action were undertaken, the bombing would have to been extremely accurate, something that can not be assured 100 percent.
And if the United States has inaccurate intelligence, which Dorn believes is unlikely, as the U.S. has been tracking Syria’s chemical weapons closely for several years, it runs the risk of bombing a chemical weapons store. And that would be a humanitarian and environmental disaster.
“Of course, that is a danger that if they were to bomb a site that had chemical weapons that it could release the chemical weapons and cause the very effect that they’re trying to avoid,” Dorn said.
“Anything that sarin touches, if you are exposed to it, then you are affected by it,” Dorn said. It could be weeks or months before it was out of the environment. And that would include any clothing or material it touched.
This makes it clear that, unless you take extraordinary precautions, bombing a building where munitions filled with sarin are stored could absolutely result in a disaster, despite what some experts are now saying.
If you’re still not convinced, the National Post also published a piece at the same time which contained similar claims and even pointed out that the same accidental release of chemicals as a result of airstrikes which, we are now told, is impossible actually happened during the Gulf War:

You simply can’t safely bomb a chemical weapon storehouse into oblivion, experts say. That’s why they say the United States is probably targeting something other than Syria’s nerve agents.


But now there is concern that bombing other sites could accidentally release dangerous chemical weapons that the U.S. military didn’t know were there because they’ve lost track of some of the suspected nerve agents.


Bombing stockpiles of chemical weapons — purposely or accidentally — would likely kill nearby civilians in an accidental nerve agent release, create a long-lasting environmental catastrophe or both, five experts told The Associated Press. That’s because under ideal conditions — and conditions wouldn’t be ideal in Syria — explosives would leave at least 20 to 30 per cent of the poison in lethal form.


“If you drop a conventional munition on a storage facility containing unknown chemical agents — and we don’t know exactly what is where in the Syrian arsenal — some of those agents will be neutralized and some will be spread,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a non-profit that focuses on all types of weaponry. “You are not going to destroy all of them.”


“It’s a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease,” Kimball said. He said some of the suspected storage sites are in or near major Syrian cities like Damascus, Homs and Hama. Those cities have a combined population of well over 2 million people.

When asked if there is any way to ensure complete destruction of the nerve agents without going in with soldiers, seizing the chemicals and burning them in a special processing plant, Ralf Trapp, a French chemical weapons consultant and longtime expert in the field, said simply: “Not really.”


Trapp said to incinerate the chemicals properly, temperatures have to get as hot as 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Experts also say weather factors — especially wind and heat — even time of day, what chemicals are stored, how much of it is around and how strong the building is all are factors in what kind of inadvertent damage could come from a bombing.


There is one precedent for bombing a chemical weapons storehouse. In 1991, during the first Persian Gulf War, the U.S. bombed Bunker 13 in Al Muthanna, Iraq. Officials figured it contained 2,500 artillery rockets filled with sarin, the same nerve gas suspected in Syria. More than two decades later the site is so contaminated no one goes near it even now.


That bunker is a special problem for inspectors because “an entry into the bunker would expose personnel to explosive, chemical and physical hazards,” says a 2012 report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which implements the international chemical weapons convention.


Pentagon planners are also worried about accidentally triggering a nerve agent attack by hitting weapons stores that have been moved by the government to new locations.

Now, I don’t know about you, but personally when someone tells me that something can’t possibly happen which I know for a fact happened in the past, I don’t take them very seriously…
More recently, after the US attacked a Syrian airfield in retaliation for the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, McMaster explicitly told journalists that measures had been taken to make sure that the missiles didn’t hit buildings where sarin was stored:

Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Herbert “HR” McMaster, told a press conference the attack aimed to reduce the airfield’s ability to “continue mass murder attacks against Syrian civilians”.


“There were measures put in place to avoid hitting what we believe is a storage of sarin gas, so that that would not be ignited and cause a hazard to civilians or anyone else,” he said.

I guess the US military must be really conscientious, since it takes precautions even against accidents that can’t possibly happen… It’s really amazing that the same newspapers which repeat ad nauseam that Russia’s theory couldn’t possibly be true, in the same breath, report claims by the US military which contradict that. Again, if only people showed a modicum of critical thinking when they read newspapers about Syria, they would see that it doesn’t make any sense. To be clear, I’m not saying that the Russians are telling the truth, I honestly have no idea. I just want to point out that the people who say they are lying are themselves lying and/or contradicting themselves.

Another thing which is often repeated, including by the so-called experts who speak to the media, is that the rebels couldn’t possibly have sarin and know how to handle it. I have already said much in my original post which should make that claim dubious, but again it seems that many people have not read it carefully, since they have repeated it as if nothing I said bore on this. In particular, some people claimed that the attack in Ghouta back in 2013 could not possibly have been perpetrated by the rebels, because it would have required quantities of sarin that only a state could manufacture. This argument was actually taken care of in Gareth Porter’s excellent article, which I mentioned in my original post, although it seems that not a lot of people have actually read it. Among other things, he points out that it’s not clear how much sarin was actually used in the attack in Ghouta and that even if several tons had been required to carry out this attack, the Japanese sect Aum Shinryko had shown that a non-state actor could have a facility capable of manufacturing as much as 70 tons of sarin. (Of course, as I explained in my original post, we also have reasons to think that a state, such as Turkey, could have provided rebels with sarin or helped them manufacture it.)

As for the claim that the rebels don’t have the expertise to handle chemical weapons, it’s contradicted by this report published by Elise Labott on CNN in 2012:

The United States and some European allies are using defense contractors to train Syrian rebels on how to secure chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria, a senior U.S. official and several senior diplomats told CNN Sunday.


The training, which is taking place in Jordan and Turkey, involves how to monitor and secure stockpiles and handle weapons sites and materials, according to the sources. Some of the contractors are on the ground in Syria working with the rebels to monitor some of the sites, according to one of the officials.

Moreover, it has been widely reported in the press that many rebels trained by the US have later defected to Al Qaeda, so the notion that rebels couldn’t possibly have the expertise to handle flies in the face of the facts.

Many people also said that the found the testimonies of some of the victims of the attack in Khan Sheikhoun convincing, but their testimonies are largely irrelevant to the question of who is responsible and, as I already noted in my original post, they are not reliable because the area where the attack took place is under the control of Al Qaeda. They are irrelevant to the question of who is responsible because, for the most part, they only bear on whether chemical agents were released in Khan Sheikhoun, which nobody denies, not even the regime. Moreover, if sarin was indeed used in the attack, many are clearly unreliable since they mention a very strong smell, even though sarin is odorless. For instance, a few days after the attack, the Guardian published this piece after one of its journalists who was able to go to Khan Sheikhoun. One of the witnesses he interviewed, a member of the White Helmets (whose unreliability I already discussed in my original post), claimed that he “could smell [the gas] from 500 metres away”. If the author of that piece, who starts by saying that the symptoms exhibited by the victims were consistent with exposure to sarin, was surprised by this claim, he doesn’t show it… Again, since the are is under the control of Al Qaeda, the testimonies of victims shouldn’t be taken very seriously anyway. Indeed, even when the victims were transported to a hospital located elsewhere, they probably still have family in the area that could be harmed if they contradict the official narrative. It’s remarkable that, when I make this totally obvious point, I’m treated as if I was saying something completely extravagant. But again I’m just asking that we apply to the same standard we would apply to the testimonies of civilians who live under the control of the regime.

I have also been criticized for uncritically relying on Seymour Hersh’s articles about Syria. But it should be clear to anyone who actually read my original post that I did nothing of the sort. I only pointed out that Hersh, who is not a crackpot, has made claims that supported the hypothesis that the attack in Ghouta had been perpetrated by the rebels. This should obviously raise our credence in that hypothesis, but I never said that it proved it and, if you read my post again, you will see that I give a lot more evidence in favor of that view. Hersh’s claims are but one small piece of evidence I use to make the case that it’s not clear that Assad was responsible for the attack in 2013. As I say in my post, I think the preponderance of the evidence suggests it was the rebels, but that’s not the most important point for me.  I would be happy if people conceded that we don’t really know who perpetrated the attack in Ghouta, which should be absolutely clear to anyone who has reviewed the evidence thoroughly. People have said that, while Hersh may have been a great investigative reporter in the past, he’d become a conspiracy theorist. This accusation against him is hardly new and, in general, his claims were later independently corroborated or at least not shown to be false. As I noted in my original post, this is actually the case for some of the claims he made about the role of Turkey in the Syrian civil war, since Turkish journalists have confirmed that Ankara was indeed providing weapons to extremist groups in Syria. Of course, this doesn’t show that he is right about sarin, but it obviously makes it more likely.

Each independent piece of evidence I cited in favor of the hypothesis that the attack in Ghouta was perpetrated by the rebels in order to drag the US into the war should raise your credence in that hypothesis and, once you consider the case as a whole, it should increase your credence even more. Indeed, it’s a widely accepted epistemic principle, both in practice and in theory, that independent pieces of evidence supporting the same hypothesis mutually reinforce each other. Again, it’s not as if I was relying on something extravagant, everyone uses that principle all the time. People have also said that the pieces of evidence I used to argue that we didn’t really know who perpetrated the attack in Ghouta were not really independent, but I’m still waiting for anyone to show me in what way some of them crucially rely on the others. I’m not going to be impressed if you accuse me of viciously circular reasoning without giving any example to support that accusation…

Since I wrote my post, Hersh published a piece about the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, in which among other things he claims that a source told him that, despite Trump’s claims to the contrary, the US intelligence knew that the regime had not used chemical weapons during the attack. It’s remarkable that Hersh had to publish this article in Die Welt after the London Review of Books, which had published his previous work on Syria, decided not to publish it even though it had apparently been able to fact-check it:

As has been the case so often in his professional life, Hersh was harshly criticized for his most recent stories about Syria, about Obama, and about bin Laden. Many say he goes too far and relies too heavily on anonymous sources. Crucially, though, no source who is actively working for a government can reveal classified information “on the record” without incurring considerable personal risk. That holds true in Germany as well.


As has always been his practice, Hersh has told Welt am Sonntag the identities of all the sources he quotes anonymously in his story about Trump’s retaliatory strike against Syria. The paper was thus able to speak independently to the central source in the U.S.


Hersh had also offered the article to the London Review of Books. The editors accepted it, paid for it, and prepared a fact checked article for publication, but decided against doing so, as they told Hersh, because of concerns that the magazine would vulnerable to criticism for seeming to take the view of the Syrian and Russian governments when it came to the April 4th bombing in Khan Sheikhoun. Hersh had met a few times with Stefan Aust when he was editor of Der Spiegel and followed his career. According to Hersh, he knew Aust to be someone who was unafraid of the consequences of publishing stories that, when verified and checked, he knew to be true. It was a natural move to send the story, as edited, to him.

Now, I have to say that I think Hersh’s article was somewhat botched, because he didn’t even try to address the evidence I discussed above that sarin was involved in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, even though it was already available when he wrote it.  But despite what Eliot Higgins seems to think, at least some of the claims Hersh makes are compatible with the presence of sarin in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, since as I have argued we can’t rule out the possibility that the regime hit with conventional bombs a building where rebels had stockpiled sarin.

NOTE: This is the second part in a three-part series of posts. See also part 1 and part 3.

2 thoughts

  1. Wow. The London Review of Books refused to publish a piece by Seymour Hersh pointing out that U.S. intelligence services know that Syria did not use chemical weapons during the attack in question. And I had always imagined the London Review of Books to be an independent (leftwing) news source! Thanks for doing all this thankless research and making known the facts on this issue.

  2. Carla Del Ponte stated clearly that the UN investigation made out the rebels used chemical weapons in Ghouta, not the Syrian governement. There is a filmed intervieuw of her declaring it clearly. Discussion should be closed. May-be you know the book of Denis O’Brien “Murder in the sunmorgue” about his findings on the Goutha attack, if not you should read it. There is also a commented video, also called Murder in the sunmorgue, which gives in a certain sense a resumé of his findings. This video is made of what the rebels filmed and published. He had to reconstruct it because the film published by the rebels was made out of pieces put together and not in a chronogical way. He put all the pieces in chronogical way. In the video Murder in the sunmorgue he gives the extracts in chronogical way of a certain part of the building were victims of the alleged sarin attack were brought. His findings are terrible about what really happened to the victims.Next to that, about the effects of Sarin, it is worthed to look at the films existing of the Halabja attack by Saddam Hussein. Off course there was a much larger attack in Halabja, but the way the victims are touched is revealing of what happens when Sarin is spread. Sarin attacks not only inside but also outside, the skin, the clothes, the victims look quite like they are burned, dried out. The victims of Khan Sheikhoun do not look like that. If there was some gas spread, it cannot be Sarin. The samples that were supposedly taken are not credible. There are many more arguments against the pretention that the Syrian army dropped a sarin bomb. Intelligent people have made this out, like the people of A Closer look at Syria, subject Khan Sheikhoun. Next to that Al Nustra fabricates chemical weapons, it has published a video about it, where it shows the rabbits they kill with chemicals, while they explain they intend to use such weapons against the Alawite and other unfaithfull people.

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